Did Public Opinion Really Shift After Tet?
Recently, the media have been referring to Tet, the North Vietnamese offensive of 1968, as a turning point in the Vietnam War--and the anti-war movement. But as Stanley Karnow suggested in his history of Vietnam a quarter century ago, the polls reflected a more complicated picture.
After the war, in an angry tirade against the press, General Westmoreland alleged that voluminous, lurid, and distorted newspaper and particularly television reports of the Tet attacks had transformed a devastating Communist military defeat in Vietnam into a "psychological victory" for the enemy. Peter Braestrup, who covered Vietnam for The Washington Post, leveled the same charge in his book Big Story, contending that "crisis journalism" had rarely "veered so widely from reality" than it did in describing and interpreting events during that period. But public opinion surveys conducted at the time made it plain that, whatever the " quality of the reporting from Vietnam, the momentous Tet episode scarcely altered American attitudes toward the war.
American opinion toward the war was far more complicated than it appeared to be on graphs and charts. Public "support" for the war had been slipping steadily for two years prior to Tet--a trend influenced by the mounting casualties, rising taxes, and, especially, the feeling that there was no end in view. For a brief moment after the Tet offensive began, Americans rallied round the flag in a predictable display of patriotic fervor. But their mood of despair quickly returned as the fighting dragged on, and their endorsement of the conflict resumed its downward spiral.
What this slide in "support" specifically meant was that, by late 1967, a plurality of Americans had concluded that the United States had "made a mistake" in committing combat troops to Vietnam. This sentiment was often analyzed wrongly, however. A common assumption was that "antiwar" signified "pro-peace." But that was not always the case. On the contrary, most Americans were dispirited because they felt that President Johnson was not prosecuting the war dynamically enough. Their attitude, summed up succinctly, seemed to say: "It was an error for us to have gotten involved in Vietnam in the first place. But now that we're there, let's win-or get out."
A survey conducted in November 1967, for example, indicated that while 44 percent of Americans favored a complete or gradual withdrawal from Vietnam, 55 percent wanted a tougher policy--and they included a handful who advocated the use of nuclear weapons. In February 1968, while the Tet offensive was raging, 53 percent favored stronger military operations, even at the risk of a clash with the Soviet Union or China, compared to only 24 percent who preferred to see the war wound down. Interestingly, much the same sentiment prevailed after the war: a study carried out in 1980 found that 65 percent of Americans believed that "the trouble in Vietnam was that our troops were asked to fight a war that we could never win."
But the spectacular offensive in Vietnam trapped Lyndon Johnson at a crucial juncture. His popularity had been dwindling for years-partly because of the war, but also because the electorat's faith in his economic and social pograms had faded. When he entered office in late 1963, eight out of ten Americans had liked his policies. By 1967, in contrast, only four out of ten citizens gave him a positive score. Then came Tet, and his ratings plummeted--as if Vietnam were a burning fuse that had suddenly ignited an explosion of dissent.
During the six weeks following the initial Communist attacks, public approval of his overall performance dropped from 48 percent to 36 percent and, more dramatically, endorsement for his handling of the war fell from 40 percent to 26 percent. The country's trust in his authority had evaporated. His credibility--the key to a president's capacity to govern--was gone.
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